A few days ago, I discussed with a German and an American friend what our preconceptions of Vietnam had been before we first came here. What did we expect to find here? What did we think the country would be like?
And, more important still, what was the biggest surprise for us when we arrived in Vietnam?
That’s obvious, one of us said, we’ll all be answering that question in the same way.
But as it turned out, the three of us were all surprised by different things in Vietnam.
Picture postcard views
One of us hadn’t anticipated the fact that people here were still wear conical hats. And that they still carry heavy loads in baskets balanced on a wooden board carried on one shoulder, which makes the whole contraption look like an old scale.
But even though the hats and the carrying devices look like they are straight out of a brochure published by the Vietnam tourism board, they’re not. They are still a very common sight all over the country.
Where to eat? The sidewalk!
My other friend hadn’t expected to find all the city sidewalks crowded with people eating. As a matter of fact, the sidewalk food vendors are where the Vietnamese have many of their meals. They sit on little plastic stools around makeshift tables and eat in the countless sidewalk restaurants. There’s one every few meters.
As a pedestrian who’s trying to make his way along the city sidewalks, you feel like the whole town is one big open-air restaurant. You constantly have to weasel your way around the tables and the eating people. And you’re constantly stepping on chicken bones, fish heads or other things the sidewalk eaters have discarded…
They call it “Creative Driving”
Asked about what surprised him most in Vietnam, my other friend immediately said: the traffic. Indeed, the way the Vietnamese drive is pretty unique.
No one who owns a set of wheels cares about red lights or traffic rules. And I’ve never seen this many motorbikes on the streets anywhere else in the world.
Bigger is better
The general traffic rule in Vietnam is: the bigger your vehicle, the more rights you have. Drivers of cars almost always feel like they have the right of way. They feel safe and secure in their vehicles – so if you’re a pedestrian trying to cross the street, you’d better get out of the way – even if your light is green and that for the cars is red.
Drivers of motorbikes, on the other hand, are even harder to predict in city traffic: they’re fast and can manoeuvre easily between the cars and bicycles. They’ll take any chance that presents itself to get a few inches ahead – in front of the other drivers. The result is chaos.
In the narrow city streets, the result is often a deadlock. Oncoming cars get squeezed in by motorbikes and blocked by other cars or scooters who want to go the other way. No one is able to move forward any more, but no one’s willing to back up a little to resolve the deadlock either.
Oh, and don’t expect the motorbike drivers to stop at red lights either. The only thing that will make them stop at a light is if there’s massive traffic crossing their path. But the most daring drivers will even risk their lives cutting through those.
If you’re a pedestrian trying to cross the street and you see a horde of motorbike drivers coming at you, the best thing to do is to pretend you didn’t notice them and keep walking at a steady pace. They’ll calculate how fast you’re walking and try to avoid hitting you. Usually they’re pretty good at just barely scraping by…
And finally, the most vulnerable
The third group on Vietnamese streets is the one that causes others the least problems: people riding their bicycles. Unfortunately, their numbers seem to be dwindling.
Whether that’s because more people are turning to motorised vehicles as the population gets richer, or because more bicyclists are getting run over and killed, I don’t know. But it’s sad.